We have all seen and heard one time or another, even if only on television, a Scottish bagpiper standing on the battlements of a castle late in the evening or walking on a moor at dusk playing a lament on the pipes. Beautiful though it is, usually once was enough! But seriously, the bagpipes seem to be able to play the lament better than almost any other instrument. It is surely something to do with the Scottish landscape and the Scottish temperament. The absolute dependence on the harsh hills and the even harsher sea is certainly part of it.
There is also the long history of struggle against the English and the landlords; going through the lost cause of the Jacobite’s and culminating in the brutality of the Highland clearances. From all this comes the lament; that type of tune which conveys the experience of loss, grief and tragedy more poignantly than any other.
What we have in the first reading today is nothing short of a lament. Job is alone, he has lost everything. He feels he is being unjustly punished by God because he has done nothing wrong. We can easily identify with Job in his lament. We have all experienced loss. We have all questioned the suffering of the innocent. And none of us can understand why suffering appears to be inflicted on those who are closest to God. But the lament is not a song of despair. Although Job says that he has left his hope behind he is still speaking to God. He might be complaining, but it is God to whom he is complaining. His lament is a prayer.
The bagpiper’s lament is tragic but it has an incomparable beauty and the beauty indicates that there is something beyond, something higher, something nobler. The piper might lament and express grief on behalf of his people and their history but he does it with music and in such a way that he demonstrates that their human spirit is not broken. There is a touch of defiance there, a refusal to be cowed, a hint in the background that there will be a victory in the future even if it is a long, long way off.
God does not cause suffering. If this were the case the people most angry with God would be those who are in the final stages of a terminal and painful illness. But this is far from the case, you only have to visit a hospice or a cancer ward and you will find it is full of people with great tranquillity and faith in God.
God alleviates suffering. Look at Jesus, by his very presence he brings healing to Simon’s mother-in-law. On every page of the Gospels you find him healing the sick and casting out demons. And it is one of the duties of every follower of Christ: to bring healing, to do what we can to alleviate suffering. And certainly we try very hard to avoid ever causing hurt to another human being.
As we have said God alleviates suffering, however, God does not abolish suffering; instead he enters into it. This is one of the really great mysteries in the true sense of the word. Not a mystery in that we don’t know the answer. But a mystery in the sense that we are dealing with a truth which is very profound and which cannot be fully understood by means of human reason alone. However, the mysteries of God, of which this mystery of suffering is one of the most important, will be fully revealed to us at the end of time.
Jesus himself suffers. He suffers with us. Through his wounds we are healed; healed from all that afflicts us; all that holds us back, whether it be sickness or sin or any other impairment. Through his suffering Jesus identifies closely with us. Even the fact that after that long night of healing Jesus goes out in the early morning and went to a lonely place to pray shows that the suffering he witnessed the night before affected him deeply. And later in the morning when the disciples disturbed him, he immediately decided to set off on another great round of teaching, healing and casting out devils.
We cannot even begin to imagine the depth of communion between the Father and the Son, in those times of prayer when Jesus went off to be alone. But surely we can surmise that he prayed about the sufferings of those poor people whom he had healed, as well as the sufferings of humanity in the past and into the future. Jesus heals but he does not destroy all sickness, all hurts, all sin, all pain. What he does do is something even greater: he saves us from death. He leads us to eternal life. He returns us to the blessed state of union with God from which we sprang. And Jesus is with us on our road through life. He accompanies us, just as we followers chose to accompany him.
The word went occurs four times in this Gospel reading and countless more times in Mark’s very dynamic Gospel. Jesus is always on the way; and where is he going? He is going to Jerusalem to suffer and die for our sake. We are his followers; what else should we do but go with him, accompany him on the road to Calvary; there to suffer and die and then to rise with him.
As we have said, the lament is not without hope. God is with us. Jesus has won the victory. The travail is worthwhile.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket